At its May 1 meeting, the faculty adopted the following memorial resolution for John T. McCartney, associate professor of government and law, who died March 28.
John Talmadge McCartney, a committed teacher and mentor to hundreds of Lafayette students, an exemplary colleague in every way, and a dear friend to many of us, passed away on March 28, 2012.
Born in Nassau, the Bahamas, on Nov. 2, 1938, John was the eldest of 10 children. His parents, John B. and Margaret Major McCartney, insisted on giving their children the best education possible in a relatively remote part of the vast British Empire. So McCartney was enrolled in St. John’s College from which he obtained the valuable Cambridge School Certificate. For the rest of his life he spoke with great appreciation on the quality of his high school education.
Following graduation, John was hired as an officer by Her Majesty’s Customs Service in Nassau. But the intellectually inclined McCartney quickly became restless; he strove to get education. Accepted by Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa (where he got a B.A. in 1964), he quickly proceeded to get his Masters’ at the University of Detroit, and eventually received his Doctorate in Political Theory at the University of Iowa.
Between 1970-1979 John served as an Instructor and then an Assistant Professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where he established and directed the Black Studies Program.
But his home country was calling him back. So in 1979 John assumed the chairmanship of the Bahamian Vanguard Party, a reformist, social-democratic movement. He ran in two elections for the Bahamian parliament but was unable to get elected. He decided to return to academic life and presented his candidacy to our Government and Law Department.
The Bahamas lost John McCartney, the politician; Lafayette College gained John McCartney, the “inspirational professor” (as many of his students thought of him).
John arrived at Lafayette in 1986. From the beginning, he demonstrated total commitment to all aspects of the life of the institution. He offered courses on Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Western Europe; Black Political Thought in the United States and Political Change in the Third World; Introduction to Black Studies & Africana Studies. On top of this impressive repertoire, John was always available to guide individual students pursuing Honors or Independent Studies. An avid baseball fan, John McCartney became the ultimate “five-tool player.”
Beyond reading constantly an amazing number of books, John’s great love in academia was teaching. His achievements in this regard were quickly recognized by Student Government and by Greek organizations, and then by his faculty colleagues (giving him the Marquis and the Jones awards). In defining his goals as a teacher, John wrote to the Provost (somewhat poetically): “I am trying to carry students on a ‘voyage’ in which they transcend their immediate experiences and impressions, and encounter in the process a ‘new’ world of ideas, values, and aspirations.”
But John’s presence on our campus was felt much beyond the classroom: his “outstanding contribution to the Lafayette College community” was noted when he got the Aaron Hoff Award.
John McCartney was always ready to assume leadership positions within the institution. For nine years he chaired the Department of Government and Law. At the same time, he also chaired Africana Studies. He was a founding member of that Program, ensuring the offering of courses dealing with African, African-American, and Caribbean issues, a major contribution to the curricular diversity of Lafayette.
In all leadership positions, the key for John’s success was his openness, ability to listen to and work with others, and fairness. John was the quintessential consensus-builder. Said about him one of his colleagues: “John was a man of the Left, but he was not dogmatic. He had a strong interest in Black politics and African-American political thought, but he was color-blind in making judgments about people.” Educated in the classics, John promoted in his personal and professional life the eternal Greek ideal of moderation.
At Lafayette, and far beyond, John delivered through the years numerous public lectures, enhancing his own reputation and that of the College. He spoke on such diverse topics as “St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Question of Peace” (Purdue, 2003), the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. (McCartney’s all-time hero, of course), Black Power in the 1960s (NPR interview, 1999), “The Life of Malcolm X” (McCartney’s Jones lecture), Nelson Mandela and African Colonialism, and so forth. Lafayette alumni, especially John’s former students, particularly liked him.
In appointing John to our faculty we took a chance—in 1985 it was unknown, maybe even unknowable, whether a Black intellectual from the Bahamas and the White, largely a-political suburbanites of Lafayette would click. To the surprise of many, possibly even John himself, his transition to our campus was a smashing success in every respect. He quickly established himself as a tough and demanding but fair-minded and even popular instructor, a master-teacher par excellence. His comprehensive exams, lasting sometimes five hours and more, became somewhat of a legend on our campus; students would cross the finish line mentally and physically exhausted and, quite literally, holding their wrists. Rumor has it that one student filled up 22 bluebooks in a single final exam!
John McCartney was the ultimate pedagogue. Above all, he was interested in transmitting knowledge to his students. In his booming baritone, with a slight Bahamian accent, he delivered carefully crafted, British-style lectures. His uncompromising commitment to the life of the mind left a lasting impression on his students.
As a political activist, John McCartney wrote scores of short essays on a variety of issues. He also authored a number of scholarly articles. But, most importantly, in 1992 he published at Temple University Press his opus magnum, Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. A tour de force of considerable intellectual rigor, the work was praised by experts as thoughtful, provocative, and well argued, a must-read in the field.
John was charmingly low key in person, as unassuming as to formalities as he was meticulous as to substance. But behind his trademark speed-walk with a plastic shopping bag in hand (“the John T. McCartney executive brief case”), John had a strong sense of purpose, commitment to excellence, and unshakeable conviction that we—individually and collectively—make a difference.
The liberal arts—those subjects that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study—have had no greater champion at Lafayette than John McCartney. For John they were truly both the means and the meaning of liberation: intellectual openness and rigor, breadth and depth, theory and practice.
In his 26-years career at Lafayette, John McCartney enriched the lives of all the people who met him. Most important among them, surely for John, were his students. One of them, Harrison Bailey III ’95, represented the students well when he wrote: “He was the most intelligent and challenging professor I have ever had. He made you want to learn more.” John’s colleagues and friends are still trying to come to terms with his sudden, final departure. A former secretary in the Department wrote: “I was fortunate to have him as my first boss here at Lafayette.” When John became ill and stopped frequenting his favorite store, Wawa, people there constantly inquired about “Doc.” Mayor Sal Panto of Easton sang John’s praises in the memorial service held on campus, reflecting the feeling of the larger community about the loss of a universally beloved man.
Mr. President: On behalf of the Memorial Committee, I move that this memorial resolution be filed with the minutes of this meeting and that copies be sent to John’s wife, Mrs. Janet McCartney in the Bahamas; John’s son, Dr. John McCartney III ’96 in Bethlehem, Pa., and John’s daughter, Anja McCartney Moss ’06.
Ilan Peleg, chair, Dana Professor of Government and Law
Rexford Ahene, Professor of Economics, Chair of Africana Studies
James Lennertz, Associate Professor of Government and Law
Read more about Lauren Frese ’03